United States Must Reconsider Rhetoric of ”˜Corpse for Corpse’

Andy Monserud

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that he would suspend the death penalty for the duration of his term. Washington will execute none of its nine death row inmates until Inslee leaves office. It’s a good indicator of Inslee’s opinion on the topic and hopefully a predictor of things to come. 

The death penalty is probably the world’s oldest form of criminal punishment. Hammurabi’s Code, among the oldest known examples of writing, prescribes the death penalty for crimes as minor as robbery. The threat of death has hung over suspected criminals for the entirety of human memory.

Until recently, I had no strong stance on the death penalty. I grew up in Minnesota, where the death penalty was abolished in 1911, so capital punishment never really had any relevance whatsoever to my life or the communities in which I lived. Even now, the idea of capital punishment is far detached from life as I see it.

Since moving to within a couple miles of those nine death-row inmates, I’ve realized that Minnesotans convicted of homicide (a charge leveled against almost all death-row inmates) live a privileged existence of sorts. Only 18 states have banned the death penalty, and Washington, Oregon and California, despite their reputation as the liberal bastions of the far West, are not among them. It’s time that changed.

The most prominent arguments in favor of capital punishment are that it saves money on prison accommodations, that it gives the families of victims the knowledge that their relatives’ killers are dead and that it deters against homicide. All three points are at best questionable, and two of them are flat-out wrong. States without capital punishment have consistently lower murder rates than those with capital punishment, and on average each execution costs the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of additional dollars on the prosecution alone. As long as the death penalty exists, each executed felon will rapidly be replaced with another. It’s a perpetual motion machine of death and taxes. The fiscal argument conveniently ignores the real problem with America’s prisons––we incarcerate far too many people without doing anything to remove the root causes of crime rates.

This parallels the issues with the second and most subjective argument in favor of capital punishment, which draws our attention to the feelings of the victims’ families. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees to make here. I have no right to tell anyone how they should feel, and neither does the government. But since “an eye for an eye” is no longer on the books, perhaps we should reconsider the rhetoric of “a corpse for a corpse.”